The Flux of Communication: Innis, Wiener, and the Perils of Positive Feedback


  • John Bonnett Brock University



Harold Innis, Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics, Toronto School, Positive feedback, Increasing returns, Media, Information/Harold Innis, Cybernétique, École de Toronto, Réaction positive, Rendements croissants, Médias, Information


Background In the early 1940s, two men from different disciplinary contexts converged on three concerns: information, its dynamics, and the pathologies stemming from those dynamics. Norbert Wiener studied these concerns from the context of mechanical and biological systems. Harold Innis viewed them from the perspective of political, social, and cultural systems.

Analysis  The purpose of this study is to establish this commonality, and consider its implications for two histories, those of the Cybernetic and Toronto Schools of Communication.

Conclusion and implications  For the Cybernetic School, the similarity suggests that the intellectual roots behind it are more extensive than scholars have appreciated.  For the Toronto School, this study suggests that the concepts of information, increasing returns, and the flux of communication are neglected constituents of Innis’ thought


Contexte  Au début des années 40, deux hommes de disciplines différentes ont convergé sur trois questions : l’information, les dynamiques de celle-ci, et les pathologies résultant de ces dynamiques. Norbert Wiener étudia ces questions en privilégiant les systèmes mécaniques et biologiques. Harold Innis quant à lui les étudia en privilégiant les systèmes politiques, sociaux et culturels.

Analyse  Cette étude a pour but de souligner la convergence entre ces deux auteurs et de considérer les implications de celle-ci pour deux histoires, celle de l’école de communication de Toronto et celle de la cybernétique.

Conclusion et implications  Pour l’école de la cybernétique, cette convergence semble indiquer que les fondements intellectuels de cette école de pensée sont plus vastes qu’on l’a cru jusqu’à présent. Pour l’école de Toronto, cette étude suggère que des concepts comme l’information, les rendements croissants et le flux de la communication sont des composantes de la pensée d’Innis qui ont été négligées jusqu’à présent.

Author Biography

John Bonnett, Brock University

John Bonnett is Associate Professor of History at Brock University, and a former Canada Resarch Chair in Digital Humanities.  He is the author of Emergence and Empire:  Innis, Complexity and the Trajectory of History, a work which won the 2013 Gertrude K. Robinson Prize, the annual prize offered by the Canadian Communications Association for best book of the year.  In his digital work, Bonnett was the lead developer of The 3D Virtual Buildings Project, an initiative that used 3D modeling to teach students historical method and critical thinking skills.  He is also the lead developer for The DataScapes Project, an initiative that is using Augmented Reality and scientific data to create new forms of landscape art.